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Exquisite Grief

And when she shall die,
Take her and cut her out in little stars,
And she will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the sun.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

And now it’s happened: I’ve lost my mother. She laid down her broken body—soft and comforting still, but no longer up to the task of moving her through the days — and died. She laid down her weary head, the short-circuiting neurons in her brain finally quiet, and slept.

In her own bed, under her lovely floral quilt, she drifted away and left physical concerns behind in the vessel housing them. Her breathing stretched, the silence between each ragged inhalation hung with anticipation. Her pounding heart slowed and faded to a quiver, like the fluttering wings of a little bird, until it beat no more. My sister quoted Shakespeare: “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day.” For Mom, the pace has ceased its forward motion; there are no more tomorrows. And in retrospect, the petty becomes hallowed. “Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow . . .”

I knew it was coming, or rather, that she was going. For months, I mourned her absence even in her presence, trying to absorb everything and indelibly imprint her image on my memory. The days, finite and measured, poured like sand through the hourglass as I watched them go. I knew I would lose my mother, but I didn’t know it would bring me to my knees.

I didn’t know how heavy grief could be, that I’d drag myself under its weight from my bed each morning, pulled into motion only by the slipstream of routine. Even then, fatigue would leave me to endure the hours until I could curl up again, alone. I didn’t know the world would be too loud and too bright and too fast, its audacity for going on as if the cosmos hadn’t shifted unforgivable. I didn’t know I’d hide from my neighbors or seek solace nightly in wine or toss and turn restlessly in my sleep, dreaming of something just out of my grasp. I didn’t know it would feel like depression.

I didn’t know it would hit this hard, losing my 71-year-old mother to multiple sclerosis. I didn’t think I was entitled to the same bereavement as my friend who lost her 21-year-old son, full of potential, to a heroine overdose; or my friend, whose 5-year-old grandson was taken by a brain tumor before his life had even begun; or my sister, whose husband died of kidney cancer when he was 47, leaving a young son fatherless. Because Mom had been ill for decades and because I’d planned for the end of her life, because she’d become increasingly distraught and difficult, because she suffered, because she was at peace and ready, because I believe her death to be merely a transition—for all these reasons I thought my sorrow would be tempered. I know now, it matters not if the death is tragic or abrupt or expected, if the life has been long or interrupted; grief pierces and reverberates through all who have loved and lost.

I didn’t know it would lodge in my body, that I’d tamp down and swallow my emotions. That staying busy would be a coping mechanism. That avoiding reminders and seeking distractions would keep me functionally numb, but one handwritten note could unravel my hold. I didn’t know it would be a physical urge, this need to cry, and when unleashed, the intensity would crash over me in waves, plunging me under and washing me to shore only when the tide went out. I didn’t know I’d be a private mourner, that I’d get through the memorial with only a few tears, but in the dark of night, in my husband’s arms, I’d finally weep unabashedly, like a child.

I didn’t know people could show such tenderness, that when I returned home I’d find my friends had cleaned my house and left plants and flowers and cards and nourishing food. I didn’t know their generosity would humble me profoundly, that every thought and prayer, every gesture, every act of service would soften the pain and blur the edges.

I didn’t know I could miss my sisters so terribly, the airport goodbyes a severing. I didn’t know we would merge into the embodiment of the best of our mother, that separation would feel unnatural, impossible even. I knew the sacred experience of nurturing the exodus of our mother’s spirit from this world would bring us closer; I didn’t know escorting her body under a full moon to the teaching hospital where she would donate her brain for research would be just as holy.

I knew we’d draw comfort from each other, but I didn’t know heaving sobs punctuated by belly laughs could be so cathartic, that the somber ceremony of scattering her ashes at the ocean’s edge on a cold, overcast day could suddenly turn uproariously funny when one sister, attempting a dramatic toss into the wind, tripped and fell into the freezing surf. I didn’t know we would celebrate our mother’s magnificent life with champagne toasts, crying as we sang along to Helen Reddy and Anne Murray and Karen Carpenter.

I knew we were strong women, that working hard was inextricably woven into who she raised us to be. But, I didn’t know we could clean out her apartment in 3½ days, a whole life summarized in the boxes we carted to my sister’s garage. I didn’t know evidence of Mom’s bravery and integrity would manifest in the intimate task of settling her affairs; not only proof of her creative, tenacious resilience—the hallmark of her personality, but also, signs of her mental decline no one could see.

I knew she was loved by many, not only friends, but those to whom she bonded with fierce loyalty, her chosen family. I didn’t know I’d dread the task of calling each one to deliver the news, that the words would stick in my throat. I didn’t know that their lives would also be bereft without her and I’d be compelled to comfort them, even as my own heart was breaking.

I knew the daily texts would stop, that I wouldn’t hear her voice exclaiming, “Hi, honey!” on the other end of the phone, that when she came to visit it was the last time. I didn’t know when I logged into her account and shut off her electricity the sudden realization of its permanence would take my breath away. I didn’t know I’d question if I should have done more and agonize over whether I’d been enough. I didn’t know I’d ache for her forgiveness.

I knew she’d stay close, that we would feel her; I didn’t know she would come to me when I was exhausted and spent, in the dream-like trance of half-sleep, and spread comfort like warmth through my chest, or when I was quiet and contemplative, in a cool breeze, gently caressing my face and answering my question, “Is that you, Mom?”

I didn’t know the previous contentment with my pretty little life would now feel like complacency; that restless whispers would become clamoring discontent, catapulting me into change and insisting I choose a different path. I didn’t know this transformation was not hers alone; it was mine as well. I know now I’ll never be the same, but therein lies the gift: the pain that shattered my carefully crafted day-to-day, leaving me to ponder my purpose and revisit the very meaning of my existence, has allowed me to create the reality I was born to live.

I know now losing my mother hurts like hell; her absence incarnate is like a light gone out and it will be dark for a while. But in the darkness, I awaken. Holding hands with divinity, I glimpse that I, too am divine. My loss is not diminished by this blissful epiphany, and surprisingly, I’m glad. I don’t want its sharpness blunted. I welcome the overflowing experience, brutal one moment and glorious the next. I did not know, I could not know I would cherish my grief, a grief made exquisite because I loved her so. As I love her now. As I will forever more. This I always knew.

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Filed under Aging, Enlightenment, Family, Grandparents, Gratitude, Grief, Letting Go, Loss, Memories, Motherhood, Sisterhood

Eulogy To My Mother

When she shall die,
Take her and cut her out in little stars,
And she will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

William Shakespeare

Wallow High School Senior Photo 1961

Patricia Ann Lyman Pullen-Jones, a 1943 New Year’s Eve baby, was from Bozeman, Montana. And Wallow, Oregon. And Monmouth and Salem and Coquille, Oregon. And Fort Collins, Colorado and Fort Meade, Maryland and Davis, California. From Phoenix, Arizona and Thousand Oaks, California, and for a short time, Taos, New Mexico. For the past 17 years, she was from her beloved Portland, Oregon.   She was from moving more times than anyone could count, except perhaps the faithful who, by her side, lifted mattresses and refrigerators and filing cabinets onto U-Hauls trucks. Pat was from making a home wherever she went; from a plethora of house plants suspended in macramé slings, sunflower artwork, ‘Bloom Where You Are Planted’ needlepoint, and The Desiderata with its burned edges, decoupaged onto a scalloped walnut plaque that hung in every living room in every house in every city. She was from a cat on her lap and a book in her hand.

Patsy was inescapably from her family: her mother, Katherine Ivannie Moore; her father, John Williamson Lyman, her big brother, J.W., who died at ten when she was only four years old, from her sister, younger by two years, Katherine Gwen and her baby sister, Doris Jane. She was from small towns and Rainbow Girls, and the newspaper her father owned (and where she worked); from a high-brow, journalistic lineage; from writers, from poets, from intelligence. She was from class.

Patricia was from skipping a grade and attending St. Paul School for Girls in Walla Walla, Washington, and from returning home to Wallowa High School and the friends she’d grown up with. From ballet and piano and theatre and baton-twirling and reporting for the school paper. From sewing her own prom dresses and covering her shoes with satin to match. She was from talent.

She was from marrying her high school sweetheart who called her Trisha, and following him across the country as he became an officer in the army, from putting him through veterinary school. And after 11 years, painful divorce. From single motherhood and singing her babies to sleep and kissing their fevered foreheads. From teaching them responsibility and manners and the names of wildflowers. She was from mama bear and don’t-mess-with-my-kid and you-and-me-against-the-world. From second chances and late-in-life babies who waited until the right time to come.

She was from three marriages and four children; Lisa Charmaine, Stephen Maynard, Heidi Ann and Sarah Elizabeth; from ten grandchildren, Melissa and Jeremy Buehner, Sydney and Haley Kent, Charles, Bronson, Isabella and Joseph Pullen, Gabriel Rabbat and Holden Collins, and one and a half great-grandchildren, Ashton and baby boy (or girl) Buehner yet to born, and with whom she dances now, whispering, “I’m your Grammy.”

Patricia was from tradition. From ham and twice-baked potatoes and peas and cheese on Christmas, from jello molds and casseroles, from lace tablecloths and felt wall-hangings. From putting in the Thanksgiving turkey and going to a movie with her kids while it roasted. She was from knitting needles and spinning her own wool; from handmade slippers and sweaters and hats and gloves. From oral traditions and stories and poetry. From re-finishing furniture and re-wiring electrical circuits and re-building computers. She was from re-cycling before re-cycling was en vogue. From flushing the transmission, replacing the starter, and installing the windshield-wiper motor on her car. From cabinets full of tools; from YouTube tutorials.

She was from Nordstrom style on a Goodwill budget and holding her chin up and pulling herself up by her bootstraps. She was from fortitude and determination and stick-to-it-iveness and elbow grease. She was from mind-your-own-business and what-goes-around-comes-around and create-your-own-reality.

She was from kisses on the lips and hugs that consumed, from frequent I love you’s and a mother’s intuition. From mothering the motherless, filling the void of their need and taking them as her own adopted children. She was from mother-love big enough to extend to her nephew, Njuguna and nieces, Randee and Cierra, acting as fierce protector and advocate, and never letting go. From making sure they stayed safe and connected, that they felt important and most of all, loved.

She was from teaching: her children, her students, her friends, and everyone around her. From standing with those who could not stand on their own. From liberal politics and feeding the hungry and sending money she didn’t have to women in war-torn and developing countries.

Pat was from loving everyone she met, and all those she met, falling head over heels in love with her. From loud, open-mouthed laughs and saying what’s on her mind and not caring what anyone thinks and swearing a blue streak. From cups of ice filled with Jim Beam and Diet Dr. Pepper, with no lid. She was from spills, and spilling over.

She was from classical music and a quiet life and simplifying. She was from tech savvy and Facebook and the internet. And texts made indecipherable by autocorrect. From many connections with many people, in her physical space and in cyber space. From loving the ones around her, and missing the ones who were not.

Pat was from MS, from nerves worn thin and the world too loud, from skin too sensitive and a heart too full, primed for love, and always broken wide open. From a cane that sat in the corner she refused to use. She was from living and dying on her own terms.

Where she was from is clear to anyone who loved her, and she will be missed immeasurably, but now, it’s about where she’s going. A place of light, brilliant and radiant, as vast as the ocean, as tall as the mountains. She’s returned to the ‘one-ness’ as she often said. She’s not left us, she is merely in non-physical form and in her death, in her own transcendence, she brings healing to her family; spontaneous, exhilarating, joyful healing that washes clean the wounds of human experience, leaving only love.

Love of a purity and magnitude beyond words. Love that is larger than we can comprehend. Love that she herself has become, encompassing and holding us in her embrace. We feel her in the breeze across our face. We feel her in the birds that swoop and soar. We feel her in the full moon as she rises over the blue planet. And if we are lucky, we see her in our dreams.

Format from the poem Where I’m From by George Ella Lyons.

The blue planet with her mountains
Now as always be my territory.
The blue planet with her rivers
Now and always be my hunting ground.
The blue planet with her cities
Now and always be my home ground.
The blue planet with all my goals
Now and always be my victory!


The Grandmother of Time, a Woman’s Book of Celebrations, Spells and Sacred Objects by Zsuzsanna E. Budapest

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Filed under Aging, Family, Grandparents, Grief, Growing Up, Letting Go, Loss, Memories, Motherhood, Parenting

Enough

I actually did it. For once I followed through on a threat. I’ve battled my children for years — no, decades — over the condition of their bedrooms. When the eldest two were teens, I all but conceded the fight. Their dark, damp rooms devolved into giant petri dishes, emanating mysteriously mingled odors. Clothes covered the floor, and dishes littered every surface; drinking glasses half-full and film-covered, cereal bowls congealed with the remnants of sugary milk, plates smeared with dried-on leftovers. Trash and treasures alike were shoved into nooks or carelessly strewn about, unprotected, revealing a laissez-faire attitude toward expensive teenaged paraphernalia: Game Boys, skateboards, headphones, stacks of loose CDs. The horrific messes frustrated me, but my kids taking everything for granted, that disheartened me. The situation resolved — when they moved out.

I can’t wait that long with the second batch. I’m old and basically one apoplectic fit away from a heart attack. I vowed things would be different and set out with two basic tactics: 1) Stay on top of it; get organized and maintain order, and 2) Teach them to be respectful; expect responsibility and reward compliance.

Mmm-hmm. Yeah.

I organized the play room with color-coded tubs on corresponding shelves. I arranged drawers, cabinets and cubbies. I used LABELS. “A place for everything and everything in its place,” I intoned, and for whole hours at a time their rooms looked like a Pottery Barn catalog — such a sweet sensation! But there was no way I could keep up the relentless policing and cajoling and reinforcing. Even with control issues, I was no match for the destructive force of my children. When I let down, even a little, it all went to hell in a hand basket; the little monsters annihilated my beautifully orchestrated design. Their energy was tornadic — toys, games, books and dolls were flung everywhere. And all those tiny pieces — broken crayons, Barbie shoes, key chains, pennies, paper clips, empty wrappers from Halloween candy and crunched-up chips smuggled in and hidden under the bed. The wreckage sent me into my own tailspin.

 

Prolonging the inevitable, I’d shut the door and walk away. I did not want to see it. Eventually I’d muster the strength and supervise the restoration of order by the demolition crew themselves. And by “supervise” I mean losing patience with their lackluster, apathetic efforts and cleaning it all up myself as they stood by, repentant and cowed into silence by my ranting.

“Look at all this stuff! It’s too much. Seriously, if you girls cannot change, you are destined to become hoarders. You’ll live alone!”

This cycle has repeated itself ten-thousand times, but the last time was different. I was different. I had enough.

“That’s IT. I am DONE! I’m NEVER doing this again. The next time you leave your things all over your room, they will BE. GONE. I MEAN it. I’ll come in here with GARBAGE bags!”

They didn’t believe me, but it was no idle threat; I followed through. Well, Steven did. My husband seemed to think I’d back-pedal, so he waited until I was at work to do the deed.  I came home to 12 heavy-duty black bags sitting in the garage where I park my car. And an empty play room. Epic in scale, their messes flat wore me out, but it was what those messes said about my kids that truly bothered me. It said they don’t appreciate what they have, that they are used to getting what they want; they’ve certainly gotten anything they’ve ever needed. And they don’t value it or the hard work and money it took to purchase their luxuries. As a parent, it’s a hard truth to face: having more than enough has not made them grateful, it’s made them greedy. And I’m to blame.

When we were in high school, my brother, sister and I lived with our single mother in a double-wide trailer. Parked on farmland in southeastern Idaho, we hunkered down for subzero winters and dug ourselves out of snow that began in October and stayed until April. To fight off the brutal cold, we fed a wood stove throughout the night and burrowed into heated waterbeds. My brother and I drove our one car to school after we dropped off our mom at work. Our clothes came from K-Mart, our furniture from thrift stores and when we worked potato harvest, our wages went to the household rather than in our pockets. I got good at pretending I wasn’t hungry on Friday nights at McDonald’s with my friends.

When I became a mother, I wanted my children to have what I didn’t, but in filling that void, maybe I denied them the opportunity to develop something I did have, in spades: a work ethic and sense of responsibility, an appreciation for material things and what it takes to earn them. Gratitude. Perspective. In hindsight, while they were tough, those experiences made me who I am today.

At Christmas, especially, when the anticipation of presents dominate my young daughters’ thoughts, when the reason for the season is buried under retail consumerism and drowned out by advertisements of aisles and aisles of bright, shiny treats, I grapple with how to adjust their attitudes. I long for them to recognize their bounty and share it freely with those in need. At heart, they’re not selfish. Sydney is so sensitive to other people’s feelings and generous. She has literally tried to give people the shirt off her back — or the iPod in her hand. And Haley, who has a special love for little ones, latches on to anything about sick kids. She filled out a donation slip for St. Jude Children’s Hospital and tucked $15 of her own money inside, asking me to mail it for her. My girls are kind and compassionate; they just need a chance to express it. And I need to lead the way.

Where to start? The world is full of hunger and pain and loss — the need so great. What could we do that would make a difference? The answer is simple: Whatever you can give, give. Whatever you can do, do. Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”

In Columbia, you don’t have to look far to find ways to give. Organizations such as The Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri, Rainbow House, Coyote HillTrue North and Harvest House are among many worthy causes working tirelessly to serve humanity. Technology makes it possible to impact lives globally as well as locally. One mom I know coordinates an annual packing party for Operation Christmas Child, sponsored by Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief organization. This year, I took the girls. On a Friday night, we gathered to fill shoeboxes with school supplies and hygiene items, socks and hats and flashlights. And toys, of course: dolls, trucks and stuffed animals; things that will surely become prized possessions rather than yet another plaything to be taken for granted. Packing the boxes full, Sydney and Haley topped them off with handwritten letters and their school pictures to add a personal touch and sent them winging their way around the world to be received by children who might not have access to clean water or health care, let alone presents on Christmas Day.

By giving their hearts, my girls realized it’s not about the stuff, and in fact, excessive stuff gets in the way. Material things are not what bring us happiness. Connection, service, love: These are the gifts I want to give my daughters, and the knowledge that they can make a difference themselves, right here at home and across the universe.

So far, it’s sticking. Greed is giving way to benevolence. We’ll keep it up, finding opportunities to reach out. It is far better to give than receive, and they know that now.

The bags containing evidence of their overabundance sat in the garage for a few weeks, giving them plenty of time to think and allowing them to discern what they cherish, what they appreciate and what they can let go of. And in the process, they learned how good it feels to have, not too much, but enough.

 
 

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Filed under Adolescence, Babies, Christmas, Family, Growing Up, Motherhood, Parenting

Snow Day

snow

I fall for it every time; I get sucked in as soon as the text buzzes on my cell phone, the email lands in my inbox, and the answering machine picks up the recording (no more need to check the scrolling list of school closings at the bottom of the TV screen): “Due to winter weather conditions, school will not be in session tomorrow.”

The kids yelp and run around in circles. “SNOW DAY!!”

Mentally I do a little happy dance as I fantasize about sleeping in and snuggling up. I envision making a big pot of soup and catching an old movie. I love the snow; it’s magical when it falls thickly and blankets the ground. I love it even more when I can stay home. Thoughts of relaxing with my family for an unexpected day in make me all warm and fuzzy.

However … the imagined cozy scene is short-lived. In the morning I’m quickly reminded of how things really go. Haley, my 5th grader, is literally bouncing off the walls; she careens into the kitchen after banging into the doorframe, slides across the tile floor in her socks and wipes out, smacking her elbow on a chair on her way down. She’s wounded and howling.

“Ow, ow, ow!  Ouch!!  That huuu-UUURT!”

But just a few seconds later she resumes her litany: “I’m awake, I’m awake, I’m awake, I’m awake. The sun is awake so I’m awake.”  The refrain continues with a rhythmic accent placed on WAKE.

Coming off of winter break, the girls have already been out of school for 2 weeks. This is our 17th day of togetherness, but who’s counting?

“It snowed, it snowed, it snowed, it snowed!” Haley twirls around singing, “Later on, we’ll conspire as we dream by the fire! In the meadow we can build a snooooooowwwman.” She stops abruptly. “Hey!  We can build a snowman!”

Suddenly she’s pulling her snowsuit over her fleece jammies and stuffing her bare feet in snow boots. “I’m gonna make a snow angel!” Her enthusiasm is boundless, but so is my exhaustion as I watch her dig through the winter gear, flinging coats and hats and gloves far and wide until she finds, at the very bottom, her scarf.

“You haven’t even had breakfast yet,” I say, realizing I haven’t even had coffee yet either. No wonder. “And you haven’t had your pill,” I add.  No wonder.

“Come here and just chill.” I call her back to the kitchen.

“I need to chill. I need to chill.” She closes her eyes and repeats the words, slowly this time, as if in meditation, “I need to chill. I need to chill.”

Her eyes snap open, her quest for serenity over. “I need to take a cheeeeeell pill, a cheeeeeell pill, a cheeeeeell pill.”

“Haley, you are a diva,” Sydney says, standing quietly in her bra and boy shorts, watching as her sister cavorts around the kitchen. Sydney is the antithesis of her sibling in personality. Four years older, Syd has Down syndrome which makes her pretty chill by nature.

Smiling, I hold out my hand to Haley. “Here’s your ‘chill’ pill,” I say, her daily Ritalin in my palm.

“No, it’s not,” she says.

“Yes, it is,” I answer.

“No, it’s not,” she quips.

“Yes, it actually is your ‘chill’ pill,” I say, gesturing emphatically with my palm. Why, exactly, am I engaging?

“No, it’s NOT!”  she laughs. “It’s my chill and grill pill.” Grabbing it from my palm, she gulps it down with a swig of milk and takes off again, running to the back door.  Looking through the glass she says, “Oooh! OOOOOOhhhhhh! Look at the snow! It’s ba-ba-ba-blowing. Look at the drifts, the way the wind moves it and the, . . hey, birdies!  Hello birdies!”

She does eventually get outside, dragging Sydney along with her, Sydney who hates the cold and hates the snow and hates being bundled up even more. Wrapping a scarf around her neck, I say, “Honey, it’s really cold out there, you have to cover your skin.” Sydney yanks it off in an uncharacteristic display of defiance, pulling her own hair in the process.

“Oookay,” I concede. “Let’s just zip you all the way up then.”

They waddle outside and around the back to a sweet little sledding track that runs between our house and the neighbor’s. We’re letting them go out by themselves this year, checking occasionally out the window. Assuming that if anyone is screaming or bleeding I’ll hear about it, I feel pretty comfortable taking advantage of the free time to talk on the phone while I take the Christmas tree down.

Removing bulbs of all sizes, I place them gently in their boxes. As I unwind the lights from the branches, my earphone feeds me my sister’s voice from Oregon. I pass by the window and see the girls together, having a blast. I can vaguely hear their shouts and laughter as they slide on plastic discs down the hill. I continue my conversation, thinking all is well suddenly, Steven comes stomping up from where he’s working downstairs–somewhere with a clear view of the back yard.

“Ha-ley!”

“What now?” I say to my husband.

“Do you need to go?” my sister asks.

“She’s got garden tools!” Steven growls, going around to the front, yelling out the door.

“Haley! Come up here and bring those with you. Right. Now!”

“What’s going on?” I ask him. Then I see. Haley is using large sharp metal tools as walking sticks—or pickaxes—to stab the snow and pull herself up the hill.  Sydney, watching from below, holds a sled and looks miserable.  She’s done.

Once inside, Sydney sheds her wet clothes in a heap by the front door and disappears. The sound of a laugh track from some Disney show or another emits through her closed door. She’s warm, she’s dry, and on a screen away from her sister. She’s happy.

Haley comes dragging in after returning everything to the garage. Dejected and sad, she says, “Sydney won’t play with me. There’s no one to play with!” For emphasis she adds, “Huummppph,” and tries to fold her arms, but her snow suit is too big.

“I’m bored!  Bored, bored, bored.”

Electronics to the rescue. The Kindle Fire Haley got from Santa this year provides amazing opportunities to download books like Robinson Crusoe and David Copperfield. She also plays Candy Crush and Mine Craft, but hey, they stimulate her mind, too, right? Sydney’s had an iPad for a few years now and uses the math and spelling apps, but left to her own devices, she’s either singing along to a music video or filming a DIY cable segment: “How To Make A Cheese Quesadilla.”

It’s true, we’re a high-tech family. We use phones, laptops, tablets and game devices daily. My sister just told me she’s limiting her son’s screen time. I know we should, too. But not today.

Sydney comes out of her bedroom in a daze and opens the fridge. She stands and stares. Then she reaches very slowly inside, her hand outstretched towards the egg carton.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“I was just, um, just feeling like, um, I just love eggs?”

“Do you want something to eat?” I ask.

“Sure!” Sydney’s eyes glow.  Haley talks to fill the time. Sydney eats.

And now the kitchen is breached.  They swarm as the food comes out . . .  again.  The dishes pile up . . . again.  I’m bombarded. Both girls talking at once, telling me what they want, what they’re doing, what they want to do, what they’ve just read, what they’re going to read, what they want me to read.

Fragments, words, bits and pieces of sentences float around me. I have lost the ability to form complete thoughts and respond patiently and coherently to my children. Tuning them out has moved beyond a survival skill to a habit.

“Uh-huh.”

“Yeah.”

“What?”

“Right.”

“Really?  Wow.”

“That’s awesome.”

An image comes to my mind of the aliens in the movie, Mars Attacks.  Upon hearing Slim Whitman’s piercing yodel, they drop to their knees, clutching the clear globes that protect their huge, exposed gray matter. In agony, the creatures writhe on the ground until their pulsing brains explode and green goo coats the inside of their helmets.

Snow ice cream and blanket forts and frozen bubbles. Projects and puzzles and playmates. This is what they need from me and it’s what I just can’t (or won’t?) give them 100% of the time. Part of the reason is probably my age and the fact that I’m just plain wearing out on the mothering front, but it’s also because I’ve never actually loved getting down on the floor with my kids or going to the park or making crafts or baking cookies.  And though I’ve spent a fair amount of time feeling guilty over it, I’ve come to terms with it.  I know who I am . . .  and so do they. Why I was thinking that staying home, confined to my house with my bored, squabbling children was going to be fun, I can only guess.

“Look, look!  Mom! Come here, I want you to watch. You have to come here to see.”

Haley has moved to the hallway, incessantly filling the air with words. I glance up.

She’s lying on her back with her legs lifted. “See!  I can open and close the door with my FEET!”

“Can you close your mouth with your feet?” Steven, walking through the kitchen, drops the one-liner with perfect timing.

As I’m chuckling at my husband’s quick wit, my text tone sounds.

“Honey, your phone,” he says.

I pick it up, swipe and read:

“Due to winter weather conditions, school will not be in session tomorrow.”

“NOOOoooooo!”

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Filed under ADHD, Christmas, Family, Motherhood, Parenting, Sisterhood, Special Needs

Elastigirl

Elastigirl

The interesting thing about being a mother is that everyone wants pets, but no one but me cleans the kitty litter.

– Meryl Streep

Haley is playing Jingle Bells on the piano.  It’s been less than a week since the girls schlepped their backpacks home stuffed with months of worksheets, book reports quizzes, science projects, a clay pinch-pot (penny holder? soap dish?), and a smashed cupcake from the last-day-of-school party.  There are no buses to catch this morning and at 8:00 a.m. they’re still in pj’s.  Sydney sits eating at the breakfast table, but her steady, methodical routine is disrupted by the percussive volume coming from the front room.

“Haley!”  I yell, “It’s June, for heaven’s sake.  Play something else.” Sending the piano stool spinning, she jumps off and comes sliding into the kitchen.

“I’ve got the Power!” she sings loudly, growling the word power and adding a kick and a punch for emphasis.

Dancing around and under my feet as I move from fridge to sink to coffee pot, she belts, “I’ve got the Power!  I’ve got the Power!  I’ve got the Power!  I’ve got the POWER!”

Ha-ley.  You’re annoying me.”  Sydney says quietly.  “Your .  .  .  singing.  You are, you are giving me .  .  .   a headache.”

“I’ve got the Power!  I’ve got the Power! I’ve got the Pow-ow-ow-ow-er!”  Haley scoots undeterred out of the room.  Sydney sighs, placing her palm on her forehead.

In preparation for summer fun with my girls, I cut back my hours at work.  My fantasies consisted of less routine and more freedom, less busy-ness and more togetherness, less time spent working and a whole lot more spent playing.  But that was before summer actually started.  I should know better by now.

Because, truth be told, I am a psychotic mommy; a June Cleaver meets Joan Crawford version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The fact that only my children are capable of triggering this instantaneous shape-shifting is oddly comforting and disturbing at the same time.

My youngest, in particular, with her brilliant mind and astounding zest for life, pushes my buttons, and is (coincidentally?), like me; multi-dimensional. Living with ADHD, she is challenged by impulsivity, inattention and hyperactivity. While Sydney needs time to process, room for flexibility and a slower pace, her sister needs constant stimulation, a high level of structure and detailed feedback.

Being with Haley is like living inside a pinball machine; a jarring barrage of sounds, words and thoughts.  Continually absorbing her environment, what she takes in, she remembers forever after.  When she was 5 she said, “I have a camera in my head,” a perfect way to describe her photographic memory. Her brain fires rapidly and her mouth interpolates a running narrative.

“How do you make your own fossil?”

“Is wood a plant?”

“Why do we say 9 ‘oh’ 4 instead of 9 ‘zero’ 4?”

“Who answers the questions that scientists can’t answer.”

Incessant talking, questioning, exploring and exclaiming; Haley is compressed energy.

Sydney tries to interject between the words, but it takes her longer to get her sentences out, “Um, Mom? Mom? Um, am I going to Camp Barnabas on June 17th?”

“Yes,” I answer for the 700th time, “you are.”

Sydney is needy for attention because her sister commands it all.

“Haley!  Stop!  Mom, I didn’t get to talk.  She’s talking across me.”

Managing the lives of not one, but two, children with special needs—diametrically opposing needs—has made me the crazy mom I am today.

But, I vow this summer will be different.   This summer I don’t want to get angry and turn green, ripping my clothing to shreds.  I need a plan.  When I’m putting away freshly folded laundry and I find mildewing towels on the bathroom floor piled on top of inside-out clothes, globs of toothpaste on the counter, and a specimen floating in an un-flushed toilet bowl and I feel a familiar chemical reaction, an adrenaline surge through my body, I need to Breeeeeeeathe.  I need to Stay. In. Control.

And, how can I make it different?  That is the million-dollar question.  Being with my kids 24/7 reminds me that there is only one time they drive me nuts, and that’s when I’m with them 24/7.

One strategy is to keep moving.  We are booked day after day and frequently into the nights.  My Google calendar is colorful with appointments and events and practices and play dates.  I can’t stop or even slow, because, at that moment, sensing weakness, they will circle for the kill.  My mind repeats, ‘just keep moving, just keep moving.’

Yesterday we made it to swim practice (almost on time), picked up milk, dish soap and a birthday present at the store, had a friend over to play and went to the library.  I managed to get dressed, but I think I may have forgotten to brush my teeth.

Realistically, I can’t keep up that pace and honestly, I don’t want to.  I crave down-time and I will get it, even if it’s forced on me by exhaustion.  They need down-time, too, so scheduling relaxation at the pool seems a perfect strategy.  The kids can swim and mommy can lie in the sun; it’s a win-win!  However, another mother has messed with my plans this year; Mother Nature.

It’s been a cold, rainy spring in Mid-Missouri but despite the temperatures and weather alerts for thunderstorms, floods, and even a tornado watch, swim team practice has been held.  The little troopers sit at the edge of the pool, shivering and hugging themselves; their lips blue, teeth chattering.  Yesterday the sun broke through the clouds for 5 glorious minutes, then, a crack of thunder, and down came the rain.  Again.

My last and best strategy is to simply let go.  Surrender.  Give in, but not give up. Flexibility is the mother’s F-word.  It feels like a relief to embrace that things won’t go as I’ve planned, and in fact, that’s not what I want anyhow.  There’s an elusive truth somewhere in the back of my mind—or heart—waiting to hand me the key to the best summer yet.   Like I said, I should know better by now and maybe I actually do.

As I renegotiate my expectations, time for myself mustn’t be excluded, because what I do know is this: ‘neglect my own needs repeatedly, mercilessly and I will crash and burn.’  Prioritizing time alone is worth any effort it takes and my spoiled princesses will learn that everything is not always about them; that their indulged desires need to be balanced with others’ needs.  And for me, space from my little darlings can be the difference between Super Mom or Mommy Dearest coming to stay; the difference between me surviving the summer or relishing it.  My house might not be clean, but I will be rested and happy and appreciating my children, who won’t ever be this young again.

“Mom, can I borrow your boxing wraps to make something?” Haley asks as I type an email.  Because of her tendency to rip through drawers and closets in search of some specific item, leaving destruction in her wake, she has been told and warned and threatened to ask before she commences digging.

“Okay,” I say, not looking up from my computer, “but only one pair.”

She starts to move, and I look at her over my reading glasses, “I will get them for you.”

Sheepishly, she says, “I already got them.”

She lifts her whole leg and sets her heel heavily on the coffee table, revealing a makeshift cast, my white wraps wound and Velcro-ed over her foot, around her ankle and all the way up to her knee.

“I broke my tibula and fibula.  Can you show me how to limp?”

Eventually, the sun has to come out, right?

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Filed under ADHD, Down syndrome, Family, Letting Go, Motherhood, Parenting, Special Needs, Stress

In the Love Place

And so lying underneath those stormy skies
She’d say, oh, I know the sun must set to rise.

Paradise by Coldplay

~For Richard, Heidi and Gabriel~

It was Sunday afternoon. The weekend that seemed to stretch out enticingly before me on Friday was, for all intents and purposes, over. I sat on the couch, mindlessly surfing Facebook, playing Angry Birds. I had the ‘Sunday blues,’ that restless dissatisfaction that strikes around 5:00 p.m. when the realization that a weekend filled with relaxation and leisure is just not going to materialize. This happens frequently. My days get filled with grocery shopping, running kids to activities, projects at home, work issues, and other mundane tasks. My fun time gets relegated to Saturday night after the kids go to bed and I pass out halfway through a movie.

I felt a shift coming in the weather foretold by the pounding headache that stormed my skull. Sitting alone I looked out the window at the gathering clouds and malaise settled over me as I thought with a sigh how the girls would be home shortly. I’d have to get up from this couch to start the nighttime routine: wrangle up dinner, corral kids into the shower and herd them to bed. I’d go through Friday folders (Sunday night folders, let’s be real) and look ahead to everyone’s schedules, gearing up for another busy week.

But that was all before I got the news that my brother-in-law had died. Just 45 minutes earlier, while I was lamenting the end of the weekend, he’d taken his last breath and given up the battle he’d waged to the finish. Though he and my sister were separated, in the end, their differences didn’t matter. The strife and tension between them healed spontaneously on his journey from this plane to the next. When cancer took over his body, she took him into her home. She tended to his dying and in the process found forgiveness. Her focus was on creating lasting memories for her son, their son.  He is seven, my nephew, much too young to lose his father. And his father, much too young to lose his life.

Richard suffered in pain and struggled for every breath. He had not come peacefully to his death. The denial tortured both he and Heidi. When his agitation became too great, the meds gave relief and he drifted in a morphine-induced fog. My sister lay down with her husband, pressing her body to his, her mouth to his ear. 

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Filed under Family, Letting Go, Loss, Marriage, Siblings, Sisterhood, Special Needs

Light Through the Aperture

 old camera

God bless the postman who brings the mail.

And bless the cowboys out on the trail.

Bless Mommy and bless Daddy who come each time I call.

God bless the folks I love, God bless us all.

Lyrics by Tom Murray, Music by Tony Burrello, 1953

I took a quiz once to define my priorities in life, listing the three possessions I would save if my house was on fire.  The answer was the same then as it is now; family photos are numero uno on my list.  And two and three as well, since I would lug through the flames as many albums as I could drag or throw.  Now, in the digital age, our collective family history is conveniently stored on my hard drive and I imagine in my panic, I might heave my iMac out the window.  It may seem like dramatic heroics to rescue mere two-dimensional images, but these visual reflections of the past not only warehouse and catalogue individual moments, but also activate and develop the negatives in my memory, bringing the people, places, and times surrounding those moments back to life, in vivid 3D Technicolor.  Pictures tell stories.  Pictures reveal secrets.  Pictures frame truths.  Irreplaceable homages to what has been and never will be again, they are priceless.

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Filed under Family, Memories, Motherhood, Parenting, Siblings, Travel

Joined at the Strands

braid

Sister, you been on my mind.

Sister, we’re two of a kind.

Oh, sister, I’m keepin’ my eye on you.

‘Miss Celie’s Blues’ from TheColor Purple.

My little sister thinks I hung the moon.  Even though I tortured her when we were young—literally—to this day she affords me hero-worship of which I am entirely undeserving.  And when she’s in pain, I still find myself wanting to make everything better though she’s across the country and not in the next room.  2,000 miles separate us now and our visits are too few, too far between. The reunions are bittersweet.  Even still, after a few days together well-worn patterns resurface.  I can be controlling and bossy.  She tends towards flighty and irresponsible. But we have the same nose. And thighs.  We laugh at the same jokes.  We share memories of times both good and not so good.  When we’re together we are children again and neither time nor distance can alter that connection.  Sisters; the love/hate bond of this relationship is like no other, making it one of the most sustaining to span a lifetime.

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Filed under Babies, Childbirth, Down syndrome, Family, Parenting, Siblings, Sisterhood, Special Needs

Symphony in the Silence

tree notes moon

Simple, profound truths come in quiet moments.  They descend gently in the warmth of a setting sun.  For me, it’s an altered perception, a shift; when time stretches and slows, and epiphanies unfold in brilliant clarity.   My daughter, Sydney lives in those moments.

Life moves fast and some say time itself is speeding up.  The efficiency of our amazing technological advances allows for rapid, immediate digital interactions but rather than creating more space in our lives, it generates a frenetic, frenzied pace as we move faster and faster, trying to do more and more.  As a mom I’ve certainly succumbed to the pressure of technostress.  The conveniences intended to make my life easier actually increase the expectations I place on myself until I am perpetually, chronically, frantically busy.  I’m weary of hearing my own response to the question “How are you?” “So busy. Crazy busy! But great!”   And I mean it; I love my life, but too much doing, not enough being resulted in everything going out and not much coming back in.  Before I knew what had happened the joy I felt in living was shrouded by the responsibilities that living demanded.

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Filed under Down syndrome, Family, Motherhood, Parenting, Siblings, Sisterhood, Special Needs